We were talking about building school board self-management capacity at the preconference workshop I presented at the NSBA National Conference a week ago – specifically, how a board can manage its own governing performance by setting performance targets and standards and regularly monitoring board members’ performance. We hadn’t gotten very far into the topic when several hands shot up, and I heard a question I frequently get in workshops: “What can we do about ‘rogue’ members on our board?” On one of the boards represented in the room, for example, three of nine board members were so focused on attacking the superintendent that they were seriously underperforming on the governing front. And to judge from the discussion, dysfunctional board members aren’t all that uncommon.
Let’s first be clear on what isn’t likely to work in dealing with rogue members of your school board. Except in extreme cases, such as serious ethical violations, direct sanctions for dysfunctional behavior in the boardroom aren’t an option. Nor is lecturing about, or even training in, appropriate board member behavior apt to make much of a difference. So what are some practical strategies you can employ for countering roguish behavior and perhaps even turning errant board members into higher functioning members of your governing team?
Indirectly, over the long run, you can strengthen your board’s composition by taking two very practical steps that many school boards around the country have been taking in recent years: develop a profile of desirable board member attributes and qualifications and share this profile widely in your community, principally by booking board members to speak in such forums as the monthly meetings of your chamber of commerce, service clubs and civic associations. Profiles I’m familiar with include such qualifications as service on other boards, a passionate commitment to public education, active participation in a PTO or PTA, other volunteer experience in your district, valuable expertise in fields such as law and accounting, and attributes such as open-mindedness and being a team player. The objective is obviously to interest qualified people in running for the board for the right reason: to do high-impact governing work.
More directly, you can systematically strengthen your board as a governing organization: developing and formally adopting a detailed board “governing mission” describing the board’s major governing functions and responsibilities; putting in place a set of well-designed board standing committees; and mapping out detailed processes for meaningful board member engagement in such governing functions as strategic planning, budgeting, and educational performance monitoring. And, of course, you can develop your board’s performance management capacity: establishing a “governance” or “board operations” committee explicitly accountable for monitoring board member performance; developing and periodically updating a set of board member performance targets and standards; and systematically monitoring board member performance. Targets might deal with such performance indicators as attendance at board and committee meetings; preparation for board meetings; and participation in designated district events such as graduation ceremonies. Standards typically focus on the norms governing board members’ interaction with each other, with the superintendent, and with district administrators; and rules to govern such activities as visiting buildings.
In my experience, a well-developed board with a strong performance management capacity is the most effective bulwark against dysfunctional board member behavior, limiting the damage rogues can do in the boardroom. The more fully developed your board is as a governing body, and the more effective its governing performance is, the more likely rogue board members are to be seen by the general public as outliers deserving public censure. And, believe it or not, I’ve actually seen rogues become more productive team players as a result of their involvement in a well-developed governing body.